Commentary: Costa Mesa needs to take the initiative on housing

Costa Mesa City Hall.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Costa Mesa is one of the safest, most vibrant and eclectic communities in Orange County. For decades, the city has grown carefully, providing a good balance of jobs, housing and open space and recreational areas. We are the City of the Arts, home of South Coast Plaza and the county’s “Capital of Cool.” Not surprisingly, Costa Mesa is a very desirable place.

But it is becoming increasingly expensive to live here, and half our residents are burdened by high housing costs and instability. Rents and home values are skyrocketing, units are overcrowded with a 2.8 percent vacancy rate, and virtually no new homes have been built over the last six years. Retail stores are vacating our primary commercial boulevards, leaving empty storefronts in their wake. Although employers continue to locate here, bringing much needed jobs and opportunity to our workers, we have lost valuable investment dollars to neighboring cities. Our outdated city codes — including land use plans from the 1990s — make it costly, difficult and risky for anyone to build new, essential projects, especially affordable housing.

These are precisely the comments offered by residents, businesses and property owners to the Costa Mesa City Council Ad Hoc Committee on Housing over the last nine months. We’ve heard resoundingly — the current situation is untenable, and the city must act.

City officials have big ideas about addressing the city’s housing needs, chief among them scaling back a 2016 initiative that aimed to give voters a say in large-scale development projects.

To be sure, over the past few years the City Council has taken significant steps to alleviate some of these problems. We distributed more than $18 million in state COVID-19 funds toward rent relief and provided more than $1.6 million in city funds toward rental assistance and programs that prevent people from becoming homeless. For those who do lose their housing, we built a 72-bed shelter and partnered with organizations like Mercy House to find housing for more than 230 people. We’re working to convert one of our motels to 88 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans and seniors through Project Homekey, and we’ve encouraged the creation of more Accessory Dwelling Units. But more needs to be done — and now.

Because our current code severely limits our ability to upgrade our corridors, attract critical investments and increase housing opportunities, we need the people to change it. That is why we have proposed an initiative for November’s ballot that will address the real crisis we face and enable the vibrant investments our community wants. The initiative provides safeguards to protect our existing single-family residential neighborhoods while allowing the city to focus investment in areas like Harbor and Newport Boulevards and north of the 405 Freeway. It preserves what we love about Costa Mesa and directs a public visioning process for updating plans to revitalize areas that desperately need care and attention. And it encourages the development of much needed affordable housing for our working families, young adults and seniors.

By carefully tailoring and modernizing our Zoning Code, this initiative provides Costa Mesa the tools to grow smartly and helps the city meet its regulatory requirements. With new housing mandates by the state, the initiative ensures that we are the ones to determine how our community develops and that we maintain local control.

It is a time for action. The City Council is putting the matter to the voters of Costa Mesa to do what is right — and what is necessary — to help solve our housing crisis. Come November, we urge you to vote for a future shaped by smart planning, community investment and leadership.

Mayor Pro Tem Andrea Marr, and council members Jeffrey Harlan and Arlis Reynolds served as the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Housing.

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